Journalist in need of Fisking

It’s hard to read most of the arts reporting in this country and not wonder what else the media gets wrong. The latest example of this, an article on the Dallas Symphony’s current situation titled How Long Can The Dallas Symphony Afford To Play In The Red? popped up yesterday:

That the symphony is in dire straights has been well documented. It has been running operating deficits ever since the 2008–2009 season. Its endowment plummeted from $120 million to $84 million after the economic downturn, though the fund’s balance was back up to $96.8 million as of May 2011. Then there were the administrative troubles, which have left the symphony effectively without a CEO since the departure of Doug Adams in August 2010. Bill Lively, who led the North Texas Super Bowl Host Committee, took the helm in April 2011, only to resign one month later.

Operating deficits aren’t good, of course – but they’re not exactly surprising in a recession like this one. I wonder if any other institutions in Dallas are running operating deficits. Isn’t Dallas home to American Airlines? Nor, of course, is the drop (and partial recovery) in the value of the orchestra’s endowment newsworthy or, in this economy, even noteworthy. Smarter people than those in charge of the DSO endowment lost far more money than that in many other places. The bit about not having a CEO is a cause for concern, although that’s hardly an “administrative trouble”: that goes directly to governance. That’s a hint as to the article’s provenance, by the way.

But then the author, Peter Simek, goes completely off the rails:

Pianist and writer Charles Rosen once said that “the death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition.” But right now, the classical music world is in the midst of frightfully tough times. Musician union strikes have plagued dozens of orchestras around the country, and there is the renewed fear that the audience for live classical music is changing. A 2011 report by the National Endowment for the Arts shows that younger people are attending fewer arts events just as older people are slowing down and also attending fewer events.

Dozens of strikes? Did I sleep through the last few years? The use of the phrase “musician union strikes” is another hint as to provenance.

Yes, there are troubling trends for attendance. And there are lots of bright minds figuring out how to deal with them. The only real surprise would be if “the audience for live classical music” wasn’t changing. The audience for everything else is.

Douglas Dempster, dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas, wrote a paper during the last recession, in the early 2000s, largely dismissing claims that the audience for classical music is dying out. But today he says the problem isn’t with the interest in classical music, but with interest in attending live performances in general. What we may be experiencing, Dempster says, is not just the typical troubles that follow in the wake of tough economic times, but economic forces that are beginning to strain the very system that has supported modern day orchestras.

I love the notion that, once upon a time, economic forces didn‘t “strain the very system that has supported modern day orchestras.” It must have been well before my time – and I’m reminded almost daily that I’ve been around for a while.

“On the one hand, whenever we have a recession, people cry Chicken Little,” Dempster says. “But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t bigger economic cycles, like climate cycles, and at a certain point you hit a breaking point. This could be a historical process playing out over 100 years.”

So we should be worried that the dinosaurs are falling from the sky very, very slowly? Personally, I think climate change is going to do us in long before that.

Tim Page, a Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic who teaches at the University of Southern California, says he thinks the classical music industry has hit that breaking point and that only the top-tier orchestras  – Cleveland, Boston, Chicago, New York—will survive.

“I look at the future of the big orchestras, and without financial angels, it is very grim,” Page says. “We hear music so easily for free, and it is so expensive to get 100 people together [to play it]. I don’t know many people my age who have subscriptions, but my grandmother did.”

Without “financial angels,” the future (not to mention the present) of  orchestras of any size is “very grim.” The same can be said of most non-profit institutions in this country. What part of “non-profit” do people have such a hard time understanding? And when, by the way, did LA and San Francisco cease to be “top-tier orchestras?” Perhaps it’s fair to drop Philly, based on how the board and staff have handled things there the past few years – but they still sound great.

A bigger question is whether it’s possible for a country like ours to have such a small number of orchestras and still have them be orchestras worth maintaining. The orchestral world is an ecosystem, not an archipelago of institutions isolated from each other. Would the four orchestras named pay a decent wage if there was no other competition for musicians? Would anyone enter the field if there was, say, one tuba opening every 20 years? And what happens to the conservatories at that point? It’s a little like saying we don’t need to save a whole forest of redwoods; we can cut down all but four, surround them with a parking lot, and think we’ve gone green.

A few orchestras have found a way to make it into the black in recent years. The Los Angeles Philharmonic has ridden the popularity of its own energetic celebrity conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, but unlike Dallas, it also has the help of a new Frank Gehry-designed spectacle of a symphony center. The New World Symphony in Miami has enjoyed critical success while cutting costs by hiring young musicians to fill its ranks, thus making it something of a musicians’ training ground.

Evidently the writer is not aware that NWS is not “something of a training ground,” but quite explicitly “America’s Orchestral Academy.” Of course, NWS is going to lose its raison d’ etre if there are only four major orchestras left; hardly a viable model for an alternative future.

Hiring young musicians is one way to cut costs, Dempster says, but the strategy runs the risk of creating problems similar to those now faced by higher education and health care. “Back in the 1960s, there was a study done by two economists that said that the performing arts could not sustain itself without public subsidies because the cost of talent would always go up faster than the background rate of inflation,” Dempster says. “That is not different than what higher education and health care have experienced. They are the exact same economic principals. The model is broken. They have been surviving, but there is no reason to assume that that is boundless.”

This paragraph makes literally no sense. What connection is there between “hiring young musicians” (which, of course, only cuts costs if the musicians are willing to subsidize the institution in the hopes of finding permanent employment in a real professional orchestra) and Baumol’s disease? And why is “Baumol’s disease” synonymous with “the model is broken”? That’s the subject of a much longer post, but, in short, the fundamental observation underlying what Baumol identified is not inconsistent with sustainability.

For now, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra is doing what it can, focusing the artistic attention on concerts driven by the talent and personality of its hot conductor in an effort to generate more revenue per performance. It will also invest heavily in building audiences. Whether these community investments will one day create new ticket buyers is yet to be seen. In the short term, the real question remains, as ever: how long can Dallas’ financial angels afford to keep the music playing?

How about “as long as they want to”? There’s certainly the money in Dallas to keep any orchestra in the world alive. The question – which the writer avoids assiduously – is whether there’s a board in Dallas to do the job.

For there is a subtext to this article; it’s suggested by the fact that the word “board” is mentioned exactly once. I suspect that this article, with its inaccurate references to “administrative troubles” and “musician union strikes,” is an attempt by at least some on the board to pre-emptively evade any responsibility for the trouble that the DSO is currently in.

Articles like this one don’t usually appear out of thin air. They get planted.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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